Viviane Sassen: Analemma review (exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery)

Viviane Sassen: Analemma

Photographer’s Gallery, 18-18 Ramilles St, near Oxford Circus, London

Until 18th January

NOTE: Pictures were removed after the exhibition closed, as per the gallery’s request.

For this winter season, the Photographer’s Gallery in London is running two exhibitions of fashion photography in parallel, displaying selected works of Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and Viviane Sassen (1972-). Beyond their shared subject, what combines the two artists is an emphasis on movement. The spectre of the silver screen is never far away from Steichen’s gaze, as almost all of his models and portrait sitters loom with enormous Art Deco shadows, as if all have been captured through a film camera which freezes all of the great and the good in the middle of performance. The exhibition of Steichen’s works is interesting enough, but truly inspiring is the Analemma exhibition of Sassen’s work on the top floor, as the exhibition itself is in constant flux, so whereas Steichen’s sitters are framed pitch-perfectly as if on stage, Sassen’s models are movement personified. Steichen’s sitters tend to preside over their surroundings and illuminate them, whereas Sassen’s are inseparable from their background, interacting with it to create new shapes and volumes. This is brought to prominence through the looped soundtrack of Boards of Canada, one of many IDM acts who have used the disorienting freedom of sampling and synthesisers to create radical geometries (which will be the subject of an upcoming blog entry)

It is only a short step for Sassen’s works to go from embodying movement to become the embodiment of travel. On a purely pragmatic basis, this makes for very appealing magazine shoots; the excitement of discovering a new place, a new presentation of fashion is distilled into a momentum which points out of the page directly at the viewer. At times this invitation to enter an undiscovered and unknown world is reminiscent of De Chirico’s haunting Surrealist landscapes.

Giorgio De Chirico - Piazza D'Italia, 1913. Notice how the painting's use of line compels the reader into the scene, albeit with an accompanying sense of dread at what may be hidden in the shadows.

Giorgio De Chirico – Piazza D’Italia, 1913. Notice how the painting’s use of line compels the reader into the scene, albeit with an accompanying sense of dread at what may be hidden in the shadows.

De Chirico’s work is uncanny for its ability to conjure a world at once conjured from the imaginary liminal space between dream and nightmare while also invoking a specific geographical arena, namely the whitewashed walls and sunbaked streets of the Mediterranean. Sassen’s invitations to alternative worlds are no less direct, but held with a distant coolness, instead of quiet terror.

Travel is never just the anodyne setting of a scene for Sassen; the setting and the model are in symbiosis. The movement of the model is equivalent to the displacement the viewer undergoes by glimpsing one of her pictures from the comfort of, one supposes, a more refined urban locale. Sassen has often commented on the particular gravity she holds towards the African landscape in which she grew up, and this is another facet of the dynamism of her pictures; there is little sense of the experienced adult objectively viewing the landscape, but a more childlike enjoyment of the landscape on its own terms. The photographer is participant, rather than observer. It would be misleading to assume an Afrocentricism in all of Sassen’s works though, as the In Bloom pieces shown in this article are evocative of the lengthy tulip fields of the Netherlands, where Sassen has been based for most of her life.

Tulips in South Holland © Alessandro Vecchi/Wikipedia

Tulips in South Holland (C) Alessandro Vecchi/Wikipedia

Her convictions about Africa are undeniable, as its central place at most of her previous exhibitions attests. But her use of the flower motif shows that she can look wider for inspiration in the natural world than she is usually given credit for. The expansive colour palette Sassen employs also helps to highlight how absurd discrimination by skin colour truly is. With her use of colours as bold as the ones displayed in a piece like In Bloom, the human species and the natural world are cross-pollinated to celebrate the other’s chromatic breadth.

Sassen sweeps up the detritus and keeps it in her luggage in her journeys to far-flung places, and often puts it centre stage in her pictures, providing a curious contrast with her visual language which otherwise abstracts models to geometric entities. Her use of pipes and tubes, for example, has a colour lexicon of its own, but still raises uncomfortable connotations in driving home a point about globalisation. I found myself thinking this during the exhibition; several of her pictures could be improved by getting rid of the commonplace props, before realising that I’d fallen into Sassen’s trap. I was seduced by the expectation of a visually appealing aesthetic working in conjunction with kinetic models to the extent that I didn’t consider the causality at work. Movement leads to travel. Travel leads to globalisation. But globalisation leads to pollution, where the African continent is all too often the depositing ground for our waste. Sassen’s willingness to create alternative worlds is not pure escapism. This is drawn out by the artist’s self-described ‘love-hate’ relationship with fashion; the models on display are assembled for an ephemeral moment, and she knows it. Holding her models in parallel with waste and detritus depicts this symbolically, as the models are as disposable as the clothes they were and the detritus which surrounds them. That said, I don’t think that Sassen makes a closed book comment – she leaves it up to us whether the models are ‘degraded’ by their association with such materials, or whether their boldness in colour and form ensures they possess a mythic power.

One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition, and one which I am glad to be able to reproduce here, is the untitled piece from 2012, one of a handful in the exhibition taken from a single shoot on what appears to be a basketball-cum-tennis court.

The markings of the court ensure that it is the perfect interstice for the human body and geometry, as the contortions of the body are made plain through its interaction with the predictable markings of the sporting arena. The fluidity of the (female) form, so often constrained by fashion, is allowed to express itself as freely as the trees and plants which populate Sassen’s photos.

Rene Magritte – Son of Man, 1964

Sassen’s play with line and colour recalls her compatriot, the artist Piet Mondrian. As well as this, there is heritage from the Surrealists – on top of the aforementioned De Chirico, her (often frustrating) manipulations of props and perspective adopt a stylistic kinship with yet another artist from the Low Countries, Rene Magritte. Magritte’s paintings never give the viewer a safe moment; you have to always be on your guard to visual tricks, at other times you may confronted by an obstacle, the latter course being best embodied by the famous painting Son of Man. Enigma is the emotion associated with Magritte’s work above all others, but the symbolic legacy of the apple – namely the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden – should not be abandoned to the winds of mystery. The title, Son of Man, directly invokes the penitence that descendants of Adam have had to undergo following Original Sin. Sassen posits a gynocentric creation, one arising out of a mother Earth or Gaia, using natural props as part of a constant rebirth, rather than a symbol of our Fall from it. This gives extra significance to Sassen’s obsession with Africa, as it is the continent from which humanity emerged. Africa is her Eden, not corrupted by any mythic event but, if anything, through the Western gaze which does not know how to contemplate it. Facilitated by this gynocentric creation, the natural world intertwines with Sassen’s women, blooming from their genitalia

.

Kudos then, to Sassen for curating two decades of substantial material, and to the Photographer’s Gallery for exhibiting it in such a creative manner, and at such a pivotal moment. With each passing day it seems as if a tipping point is being reached whereby, through the medium of social media, blogs, and viral articles, patriarchal tables are being turned and women are asserting their sexual autonomy, ending what may hopefully be seen in the future as an embarrassing period of human history where men felt obliged to tell women exactly how their bodies should operate. As well as this, Sassen’s work is necessary viewing in the midst of an Ebola crisis where the Western world seems enamoured with a primitive view of Africa, not helped by the crustiness of Band Aid 30. This is an exhibition with a finger on the pulse and an eye scanning the horizon – see it while you still can. It’s open until the 18th of January.

All photos reproduced with kind permission of the Photographers’ Gallery

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